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Epic vs. Steam is just the latest battle in the dark history of DRM

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Earlier this month, PC gaming fans learned that the long-awaited Borderlands 3 would initially launch exclusively on the Epic Store, not Valve Corporation’s older and more popular Steam platform, and a number of them exploded with rage. Steam users review-bombed the earlier Borderlands games, calling Epic Games a “scummy company” and its actions “a slap in the face.” Critics posted a litany of reasons to hate the Epic Store, ranging from minor feature complaints to serious concerns about privacy and security. They’d made similar protests against earlier Epic exclusivity deals, including the shooter Metro: Exodus.

Other reviewers, however, were incredulous at the level of anger. “Review bombing? Seriously? Over your favorite choice of DRM [digital rights management] platform?” asked one person. Several of the complaints against Epic were undeniable, but others were overblown, including a theory that Epic investor Tencent was funneling player data to the Chinese government. And the dispute reminded many observers of a small-scale console war, something that was based more in fandom than dispassionate analysis. “At this point, Steam is not just a place to buy games,” Motherboard noted. “It’s a part of some people’s identity.”

But the vitriol against Epic isn’t just about a devoted fandom defending a corporation, or players preferring one piece of software to another. It’s rooted in a long war over copy protection and DRM, which is one of the biggest, ugliest flashpoints for controversy in PC gaming.

For over a decade, virtually every major system for managing PC games has been met with annoyance and suspicion. EA’s Origin Store — the first significant Steam competitor — had a decidedly cool reception back in 2011 when players uncovered some troubling clauses in its user agreement and accused EA of putting spyware on their computers. Steam was one of the first online DRM systems, and as ExtremeTech recently explained, plenty of users hated that Valve was routing all of its new games through the service, including early Steam exclusive Half-Life 2. Why, people wondered, should you have to connect to the internet to launch a game? Did you really “own” something that you downloaded through a piece of software that could easily shut down?

Eventually, Steam managed to not only survive, but cement Valve’s position as one of the “good guys” of PC gaming. And it owes some of that reputation to a particularly nasty DRM war.

Around 2008, as Steam was finishing its transition from a Valve gaming platform to a general purpose storefront, blockbuster PC games started shipping with a universally loathed copy protection system called SecuROM. Sony’s software added seemingly arbitrary restrictions to titles like Mass Effect and BioShock, limiting PC players to a few installations and rechecking their legitimacy every couple of weeks. It didn’t help that customer support staff had trouble even explaining the restrictions.

I was playing PC games in college when SecuROM games started shipping, and the move seemed like a genuine gesture of contempt toward players at a time when media companies, in general, treated fans as adversaries, aggressively prosecuting pirates in addition to locking down content. Kotaku called the system “draconian,” and customers complained about “being treated like a thief.” The whole controversy nearly overshadowed the launch of simulation game Spore, with Amazon users review-bombing the massively anticipated project into one-star oblivion. One angry buyer even filed a class action lawsuit against Spore’s publisher EA, claiming it had misled her about how SecuROM worked. EA settled the case in 2010.

Steam games weren’t necessarily exempt from additional copy protections like SecuROM, and Steam itself was obviously a locked-down platform; the excellent (but much smaller) GOG store, which launched in 2008, put it to shame with a firmly DRM-free catalog. Steam raised as many questions about ownership as any other copy protection system.

But Valve had also worked to make its platform more convenient and user-friendly. It added an offline mode for games you’d already installed, and as its third-party catalog expanded, it began to work as a centralized library while letting players avoid the hassle of buying physical discs and typing in CD keys. When Steam worked well, it seemed like proof that a company could offer anti-piracy limitations as a fair trade-off, not a preemptive punishment. To paraphrase my then-boyfriend, a staunch movie and music pirate with a surprisingly extensive Steam library, Valve had made DRM fun.

This wasn’t an unusual assessment. Kotaku editor-in-chief Brian Crecente described Steam as a way forward for the entire gaming industry. As he put it, Steam had “at least a kernel of gamer interest at its heart,” compared to the “golden handcuffs” of SecuROM. Ultimately, Steam and similar digital storefronts thrived, while SecuROM became shorthand for everything wrong with anti-piracy efforts. By 2015, Microsoft was no longer even supporting the software.

I felt a deep love for Steam in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s and a boundless hatred for products like SecuROM. (I remember ranting extensively about the software to a gaming executive who visited my college, a decision that now seems more awkward than righteous.) It was a fair position, but over the years, it’s also taken on darker undertones. My version of the fight against DRM put an almost exclusive emphasis on the rights of players, and it encouraged a Manichean, no-holds-barred approach to fighting perceived injustice — even when the injustice involved installing a video game. I’ve seen that approach mirrored over and over in the harassment campaigns and “consumer revolts” of more recent years.

Obviously, my perspective has changed along with the world. Once, the games industry felt like a distant series of faceless companies to me, until I started actually talking to game creators for The Verge. But I don’t think that’s the only factor. “Gamer interest” sounded noble in 2008. Now, a vocal subset of self-identified “gamers” regularly cross the line between asking for fair treatment as customers and demanding that studios cater to them at any cost. Review-bombing has become more strongly associated with angry bigots and hyper-entitled consumers than legitimately frustrated players — even if it’s still one of the simplest ways to express a complaint.

There’s also a rightly growing spotlight on how big studios and storefronts have failed developers, often in the name of keeping fans happy. The very things that made Steam so convenient — like its holiday sales and its de facto monopoly that gives many a single place to buy and their launch PC games — have been less clearly positive for game studios. Game makers regularly complain about having to compete against Valve’s cutthroat discovery algorithms or not being protected from abusive players.

Just as Steam presented an alternative to user-unfriendly systems like SecuROM, Epic may ultimately end up being able to present itself as a friendly alternative to Steam. It’s appealed to developers with lower pricing rates, and while players have complained about a lackluster interface, they can benefit from some of its structural decisions — like the fact that Epic gives developers leeway to pick their DRM options.

Even now, though, the Epic furor speaks to a real and long-running fear of losing control over how we play games, one that’s only become more relevant as physical media fades into the past.

Update 3:30PM ET: Added more detail about Epic’s DRM structure.